A Proust Dipper

It’s been a big couple of years for Marcel Proust fans. Today marks 100 years since his death, which comes on the heels of the 150th anniversary of his birth, celebrated last year. It’s been an even better year or two for people who like to criticise Proust fans for being ‘snobs’ and ‘masochists.’ Guilty on both counts. That is, if you accept that reading literary classics is a sign of snobbery. As for masochism, I don’t know why I tackle some of the tomes that I do, especially in French, or even worse for me in Italian.

So, what is it like to read Proust? According to the Proust Society of America, Proust’s longest sentence was 958 words. Why not break this sentence up into other sentences? I ask, wearing my editor’s hat. I’m sure Proust had his reasons. I suspect it had to do with the many thoughts that operate in our minds at the same time, a sense of time collapsing on itself. That is one of the things I enjoy about reading his fiction – it often challenges our sense of space and time in the context of day-to-day life without entering fantasy, sci-fi or magical realism (not that there’s anything wrong with this genres).

Remembrance of Things Past (La Recherche, as the French call it), Proust’s highly autobiographical masterpiece, has a dream-like quality of a broken narrative that reconnects at the will of its narrator trying to figure out his life. I’m re-reading the first book of this 7-volume, 3,000 + page magnum opus– this time in French – snob, masochist.

Proust’s writing and life are intertwined, and I suspect that is a part of the fascination and cult-like following that Proust has garnered. He lived during the scintillating times of the Belle Epoch and hobnobbed with artists, writers and socialites of the day, including Andre Gide, James Joyce and Sarah Bernhardt. Nobel laureate Annie Ernaux, who is also a masterful practitioner of autofiction, says of Proust:

‘He is the total writer. One has the impression that Proust, as a person, does not exist. He is entirely in La Recherche. That’s what I admire so deeply. He is the total work- he cannot be compared with another.’

Although he never publicly admitted to being gay, his relationships with men are well known and included in nearly every biography. According to William Carter, one of Proust’s many biographers, “Proust was the first novelist to explore the entire spectrum of human sexuality.” Carter adds, “Characters could be homosexual in the first part of their lives and heterosexual later, or the reverse.” Proust was ahead of his time as a philosopher and sociologist of sorts on matters of sexuality and gender. While I’m reading La Recherche in order – that is, beginning to end – I dip into it to read a few pages at a time, and sometimes before bed, a few long paragraphs before nodding off. I find myself leaving it for a couple of weeks to read some other novel by a completely different type of writer and then returning to Proust, not always remembering all the details of characters or events. But strangely, that doesn’t matter as the language and sentiments soon draw me back in. According to Alice Jacquelin, literature lecturer at Nanterre University and Proust specialist, “There’s no sacrilege in dipping into it.” The book lends itself to that. The reader can experience snippets of a life and still feel immersed in Proust’s world, a world cherished by us literary snobs and masochists.

The only known film image of Proust from a home movie of a wedding.

Thrutopia

Move aside dystopian literature and make way for thrutopian tales that give hope without the silliness of sugar-coated utopias. In recent years, I’ve been reading about this call to arms to establish a new genre of literature. The word has its origins in the idea of going ‘thru’ from one place to another.

In 2017, writing for the Huffington Post, environmental campaigner Rupert Read made the case that a thrutopia could get us through the climate crisis. In sum, his argument was that we need ‘artistic or philosophical vision’ for the future that dealt with the harsh realities without being dystopic and without the blind optimism of utopia. He explains:

‘Thrutopias would be about how to get from here to there, where ‘there’ is far far away in time. How to live and love and vision and carve out a future, through pressed times that will endure. The climate crisis is going to be a long emergency, probably lasting hundreds of years. It is useless to fantasise a shining sheer escape from it to utopia. But it’s similarly useless, dangerously defeatist, to wallow around in dystopias. We need ways of seeing, understanding, inhabiting, creating what will be needed for the very long haul.’

While I agree with the general idea, I don’t think I’d call dystopic literature ‘dangerously defeatist.’ I’m thinking Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which was first in the 80s and more recently thanks to the TV series, a warning of a world controlled by religious extremists. Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road are likewise more realistic than defeatist, but with the reader knowing that they have elements of make-believe. The real sense of defeatism emerges when reading commentaries in the media about the irreversible damage brought on by the climate crisis at a time when a world leader of dubious sanity is threatening to use nuclear arms.

This new thrutopic-like genre was also proposed by novelist Ben Okri, writing in The Guardian around the time of Cop26. Like Read, Okri calls exclaims, ‘We have to find a new art and a new psychology to penetrate the apathy and the denial that are preventing us making the changes that are inevitable if our world is to survive.’ Like Read, he criticises dystopias and utopias, opting for a realism that gives us hope.

Taking thrutopic literature a step further, this summer Mslexia, in an article penned by novelist Manda Scott, offered a primer on the topic, giving advice and workshop ideas for writers wishing to try their hand at this new genre. Years ago, I dabbled in psychological science fiction, and the idea of creating a thrutopic story had me wondering. Yes, I could give it a try. Why not?

Then I read ‘The Secret Source,’ a short story by Ben Orki in The New Yorker. It’s set in the not-too-distant future where the world is trapped in the water crisis and cruel, cynical governments conserve drinking water by poisoning its minions. Dark reading from the writer who espoused ‘hope.’ I confess, I enjoyed this deliciously dystopic tale, perhaps for the same reason that I find villains are often more interesting than heroes. That is, I’m hedging towards thrutopia in philosophy if I can sink my teeth into the occasional dystopic story.

According to Read, the philosophy of thrutopia can be simply stated: ‘Don’t defer your dreams. We need those dreams now. Experience the present as paradisiacal, and change it where it isn’t, and then we might just get through.’ That sounds fine to me.

Illustration by Holly Warburton, purloined from The New Yorker.

Gringas, Latinas and Selective Nostalgia

I wasn’t looking for a theme, but in the last few weeks I just happened to read two books set in the US and Central America during the 1960s. I was a baby when Kennedy was assassinated and only half experienced this decade as a young child. Yet it keeps a grip on my consciousness – a combination of selective nostalgia for the music and the changing attitudes and a fascination with that era’s dubious social politics and reshaping of world order. These two books, Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer and Angie Cruz’s Dominicana, delivered on both fronts.

A Book of Common Prayer was written in 1977 and has enjoyed a resurgence since the author’s death last year. (I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get around to it given that I’ve been an admirer of Didion’s non-fiction for decades.) Set mostly in the fictitious country of Boca Grande, somewhere in Central America, it dips in and out of the US, where the main characters are from, with flashbacks and flashforwards. A personal and political story, the novel gently satires the privileged lives of Americans in the corrupt country, war-torn and exploited by American involvement. The narrator, the widowed Grace, owns most of the country’s land and knows its political secrets when she meets Charlotte, a wealthy and naïve norteamericana, as she is called. Charlotte, married to a lawyer who traffics weapons, is eluding the FBI, who are searching for Charlotte’s fugitive daughter, an architype of the 60s rebellious generation. Keenly observing Charlotte’s behaviours that range from flippantly self-centred to darkly mysterious, Grace’s narration exudes a controlled voice that delivers wry comments with aplomb. It’s writing that leaps out at you while never neglecting the character-driven story or the slippery ruthlessness of the US presence in Central America at that time.

Angie Cruz’s Dominicana came out in 2019 and is mainly set in New York in the 60s, when immigrants were arriving from the Dominican Republic to escape poverty, civil war and ultimately an American invasion. In the Dominican Republic, Ana, aged 15, is chosen to marry Juan, who has negotiated a deal to purchase her family’s land and take Ana to America, where he and his brothers are working. With falsified documents, Ana becomes 19 and soon finds herself in a starkly different culture where she doesn’t speak the language, spending her days alone cooking and cleaning for her abusive two-timing husband. The stranger in a strange land is a worn trope, but here it works because it doesn’t drive the plot. The need to send money home to her family and contend with her own personhood while pregnant move this story into a page-tuner. Along with delving into the hardships of immigration and oppression of women, the reader is treated to glimpses of 60s America, where vintage episodes of I Love Lucy bemuse and influence Ana’s views of Americans. Though stylistically not in the class of Didion’s writing, it has its literary moments, including a delightful sex scene featuring a pregnant woman.

Both novels fed into my 60s selective nostalgia, while reminding me of the difficulties of the time. If I could time travel, I wouldn’t go back to that decade, especially as an adult, especially as a woman. Some time periods are best viewed from the vantage point of hindsight with a helping of fictional escapism.

Summer reading that’s not

It’s that time of year when we’re bombarded with recommendations of what to read while on the beach or in the garden or, if your British and it’s raining, in the camper or beach hut. The New Yorker’s recommendations start with ‘For your summer reading, it might be nice to go with something relatively light.’ As I’ve been reading these listacles and adding a couple of titles to my Amazon Wishlist (though eventually I’ll get some from the library), I’ve noticed what’s missing – the books I’ve been reading so far this summer. Explainer: with an apartment in Nice and no school calendar to follow, my summer began in mid-May. I’m not complaining.

The three fiction books I’ve read for my first half of summer, and summer does seem to be more about fiction, are all authored by Ukrainian writers. While a couple have had favourable reviews in the popular press, with one on the New York Times best-seller list, none of them appear to be worthy of ‘summer reads.’ Is summer reading all about light subject matters for our holiday-mode brains? Or is there an unwritten rule among media outlets that summer reading should be detached from the harsh realities of current events?

Ignoring the summer hit list, my reading choices came from my friends and book reviews from earlier in the year.

Late May was consumed by Sweet Darusya: A Tale of Two Villages by Maria Matios. A deceptively simple read with a hint of magical realism, it could have been on any summer list. Perhaps it didn’t make the cut because it deals with some of the cruelty of life in Ukraine. Not the Ukraine that has been in our news since late February. This novel is set in a rural Carpathian village from the 1940s to the 60s, telling the story in three parts in reverse chronological order. The dysfunctional and often brutal lives of the two families at the centre of these interlocked tales have their moments of dry humour and weirdness. Ultimately it takes the reader back to the Second World War when the village was seized by the Romanians, followed by the Soviets, the Germans and back to the Soviets again. Though not a story about war, the fighting holds a shadowy presence. ‘Life and war continued simultaneously, at the same time dependent on and independent from one another.’

A few weeks in June went to Grey Bees by Andrey Kurkov. Set soon after the Russian annexation of Crimea when Russian-backed separatists were fighting Ukrainians in Donetsk and Luhansk, this story is all about war but from the view of civilians caught up in it. During this conflict, Donbas became a grey zone, which included a village where only a beekeeper and a ‘sort of friend’- that is, a friend of convenience – remain with limited resources. More of a page turner than Sweet Darusya, Grey Bees has characters I cared about and could chuckle with. The novel is sprinkled with light touches of humour and socio-political satire, and yet at the same time manages to convey the gravity of the circumstances for these lost souls.

I’ve ended this Ukrainian trio last week with a collection of stories by Oksana Zabuzhko called Your Ad Could Go Here. Indeed, the stories are as diverse as advertisements, a potpourri of subjects, written with the sophistication and bizarre juxtaposition of Zabuzhko’s celebrated poetry. I’ll let her prose speak for itself in this passage of a woman trying to go about her routine the morning after a casual sex encounter:

“Later she takes a long, thorough bath, and brushes her teeth three times because the odour seems permanent, and when she steps out of the bath, it’s starting to turn grey outside. Vovka Lasota lies in her bed with his head wrapped in the sheets like a Bedouin corpse ready for burial, and just like the dead Bedouin, he has nowhere to go (sure, divorce isn’t easy on anyone, especially on men, who soon seem like abandoned dogs who’ll lick anyone, seeking a master).”

I’m glad I didn’t let the heat wave (39C in Ely last week) stop me from taking in these books that might not be beach reading but seem as important as they were enjoyable. Forget the summer reading listacles, I’m keeping some of my thoughts with people trapped in this ruthless war.

Oksana Zabuzhko

Dalloway Day

For the past five years the Royal Society of Literature has celebrated the writings of Virginia Woolf on a Wednesday in June. Today is that Wednesday. Interesting that this society has chosen the short novel Mrs Dalloway for the festival name. As much as I appreciate Mrs Dalloway, and have read it twice, of Woolf’s oeuvre, To the Lighthouse is a richer story, one that had me up until 3 am to finish it, and it remains at the top of my list.

I appreciate that Mrs Dalloway is more accessible than some of Woolf’s other books. It has also benefitted from an excellent film adaption (1997), with Vanessa Redgrave in the lead role. Written in a third-person omniscient narration as if in the mind of Clarissa Dalloway, the story takes place in London over a 24-hour period soon after the end of the First World war, moving continuously between the past and the present as remembered and interpreted by Clarissa. The intensity of the drama unfolds in otherwise mundane circumstances as Clarissa prepares for a party at her home, which she shares with her husband, a wealthy politician. Depicting an era full of hope and a renewed sense of freedom mixed with the unhealed wounds in the aftermath of war, one of key subplots involves a veteran suffering from what was then called shell shock (PTSD).

Stylistically, Mrs Dalloway is well worth reading. The dreamy stream-of-conscientiousness style with calculated repetitions weaves together emotions, actions and dialogues. While the book has many quotable lines, I’ll just give you this to savour:

‘She belonged to a different age, but being so entire, so complete, would always stand up on the horizon, stone-white, eminent, like a lighthouse marking some past stage on this adventurous, long, long voyage, this interminable—this interminable life.’

But is this enough to justify a day to celebrate the writings of Virginia Woolf? I think so for the simple reason that in modern parlance, she is an influencer. Her book-length essay A Room of One’s Own is an often-quoted title, edging on the verge of cliché. Mrs Dalloway served as the premise to the point of modern-day-rewrite for Michael Cunningham’s brilliant The Hours. Taking a somewhat cynical look at Woolf worship combined with social satire on reality television, I flagrantly purloined from the author’s life and works in my stage play Virginia Woolf Get a Makeover. This list of borrowings probably has no end.

Dare I say that people who have never read Woolf’s work know of her, and I’d like to think that this virtual holiday encourages more people to read one of the English language’s greatest writers.

Dark Tourism

Disasters fascinate. The Titanic still garners interest after 100-plus years. Though I suspect some of that has to do with the lost ship and its treasures. The other side of Titanic fetish comes from the high number of casualties, that mass grave in the North Atlantic, arguably an example of what’s been called ‘dark tourism.’

My disaster fascination is with Pompeii, where some 2,000 people died when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. I first caught Pompeii fever as a child when an exhibit about Pompeii toured America and came to the Art Institute of Chicago. I was mesmerized by the plaster casts made from the ashen moulds of bodies frozen in time at the moment of horrific death. My recollection of this includes seeing people screaming. But that’s an unfaithful childhood memory. The reality wasn’t so detailed or morbidly vivid. Most of the figures are covering their heads, crouched or lying down. My adult self looks at these casts and imagines people being in a state of meditative acceptance of their mortality I visited the remains of Pompeii on two occasions, once in the 80s and sometime around 2005-06. The disaster is still fascinating, but more so for what it has left behind – the artifacts and structures that reveal how the inhabitants of the ancient town lived.

More recently, I had the pleasure of hearing the historian and classicist Mary Beard talk about her book and television series on Pompeii. Beard has changed my way of thinking about these people, for instance, pointing out that it would be wrong to call them Romans. The graffiti and inscribed objects indicate a diverse population, with speakers of Latin, Oscan, Greek and Hebrew.

Mary Beard among the human remains of Pompeii

This point is also picked up in Robert Harris’s brilliant novel Pompeii, a true page-turner set in the days before and during the eruption, with well-drawn characters and an attention to detail praised by historians. Harris digs into the minds of the people of that time who regarded such disasters as vengeance from the gods and the warnings that they had that went unceded. His protagonist, the region’s aquarius responsible for the aqueducts feeding into the towns, makes this observation: ‘Perhaps Mother Nature is punishing us, he thought, for our greed and selfishness. We torture her at all hours by iron and wood, fire and stone. We dig her up and dump her in the sea. We sink mineshafts into her and drag out her entrails – and all for a jewel to wear on a pretty finger. Who can blame her if she occasionally quivers with anger?’ This underlying environmental message also makes this worth a read.

There’s another type of dark tourism that I’ve been thinking about lately. The phrase is also used for visiting places like the concentration camp at Auschwitz, the Rwandan genocide towns (Kigali, Nyamata and Ntarma) and the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, where apparently the rubble and twisted metal from the immediate aftermath of the bomb remain in situ. I’d argue that these sites, though they might hold a morbid fascination for some, are more about education, pointing the finger at human destruction and the mistakes of those who turned a blind eye. Watching, reading and hearing the news day in and day out, I wonder if Bucha and Mariupol will become sites for dark tourism.

Ai Qing’s Wetnurse

I’ve been listening to Ai Wie Wie’s memoir 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows, where he writes eloquently about his father’s life that in so many ways mirrored his own. Both father and son had been persecuted by the state. Although I’ve been following Ai Weiwei’s life and works for years, his father was always in the background until now. That is, a good book is one that leads me to another.

Ai’s father, Ai Qing was a well-known poet. Pablo Neruda, a contemporary and friend, referred to Ai Qing as the ‘Prince of Poets.’ Of the many fascinating episodes in his father’s life that Ai Weiwei recounts, there’s one that I can’t get out of my head. Ai Qing’s family belonged to the gentry in China in the early 1900s and as was the custom, babies were fed and mostly cared for by their wetnurses. In Ai Qing’s case, his wetnurse Dayanhe had several children of her own. For Dayanhe to secure employment as a wetnurse, she had her last child – a girl – killed. As Ai Weiwei explains it (forgive the paraphrase, but I’m working from an Audible book), so was the need for income from being a wetnurse and the prestige of working for Ai Qing’s family, the sacrifice was understood and not uncommon. Ai Weiwei adds that even today it is not unheard of in poor rural areas of China.

This is one of those examples of the lives of women and girls being expendable, disposable, and defined by their willingness to forgo something precious for themselves and others to survive.

AI Qing’s’ his first collection of verse (1936) was titled after a poem about his wetnurse that bore her name Dayanhe. Trying to find a copy of this book in English, I’ve stumbled across summaries of the poem which euphemistically call her a ‘foster nurse,’ a ‘childhood nurse’ or ‘the woman who reared him.’ There appears to be something about wetnurses that requires censoring.

In ‘Dayanhe’ Qing praises his nurse’s character as steadfast and kind-hearted, describing her life of poverty. Without a specific mention of the infanticide that she and her family committed, he writes of her ‘lifetime of humiliation at the hands of the world’ and suggests her fate was shared by all oppressed women in China. The poem ends with a dedication to these Chinese women: ‘Dedicated to all of them on earth, the wet-nurses like my Dayanhe, and all their sons.’

Women who wander

For International Women’s Day, I thought I’d share my thoughts on the flâneuse. She’s a woman who wanders city streets dawdling, observing and thinking. Not a streetwalker in the sex-worker sense. The term comes from the French male equivalent flâneur, once used to describe famous writers and painters who strolled the streets of Paris. I recently read Lauren Elkin’s highly engaging Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London. Straightaway, Elkin points out that a flâneuse is not merely a female flâneur, ‘but a figure to be reckoned with, and inspired by, all on her own. She voyages out, and goes where she’s not supposed to.’

I’ve long been a flâneuse myself, walking alone the streets of towns and cities I’ve lived in and visited. Part of this is for the love of walking, but also out of curiosity and for the stimulation of city life – the architecture, the buses and trains, the workers, shoppers, runners and tourists, the aromas from cafes and restaurants and those cherished green spaces of public parks and squares. I was reminded of my walking excursions in old European cities with this passage, where Elkin describes her flânerie in Paris:

‘I am always looking for ghosts on the boulevards. So many people have passed through Paris; did they leave any residue? Some parts of town seem still to be inhabited by older souls who won’t leave – up towards the Portes Saint-Denis and Saint-Martin I think I can feel them, crowds of people in bowler hats and long skirts, I can sense them pressing past me along with the people I recognise from my own time, bare-headed and in short skirts.’

As you can see, some of this book is memoir and travelogue about her own experiences, but equally interesting, it’s also biography and literary criticism. Elkin delves into the lives and writings of famous flâneuses, including Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, Martha Gellhorn and George Sand (who dressed as a man to freely walk the streets). One of the flâneuses not mentioned that I would have included is Phyllis Pearsall (1906-1996), who created the A-to-Z maps of London. In producing the first edition of the detailed maps, she walked for 18 hours each day traversing over 23,000 roads covering more than 3,000 miles.

As I reflect on these courageous and somewhat quirky women, I’m aware that they have had the fortune of being for the most part middle class and living in the West, with some freedoms not afforded to poorer women or to women even today, rich or poor, living in some other parts of the world. I am also aware in our present day that these women, these lucky flâneuses, were wandering through cities not under siege – another stark reminder of what people lose at times of war.

Novelist Jean Rhys

Blue and Yellow

There’s an awful lot of blue and yellow out there these days. According to a few online ‘-edias’ and ‘-ictionaries’, the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag represent the sky and fields of wheat. This combination of colours comes from the flag of the Kingdom of Galicia–Volhynia, used in the 12th century for the lands that include modern-day Ukraine.

Even the Covid-19 pandemic has failed to unite people the way Putin’s attack on Ukraine has. The pandemic was beleaguered from the start with different theories on how it spreads and what strategies governments should take to protect people. And let’s not forget the covid-deniers and anti-vaxers. The war in Ukraine is more straightforward. Though the solutions and ways of taming Putin are complex, we have all witnessed this unprovoked attack on a liberal democracy and recognise propaganda when we hear it.

I suspect that we’re sporting the blue and yellow, not only because we’re humanitarians, but because we feel vulnerable. I sure do. The possibility of another world war, one that would be, unlike its predecessors, fuelled in part by cyber-attacks and nuclear arsenals leaves me edging towards panic, that sensation of falling from high without a net.

Everyone has their own means of dealing with this feeling of vulnerability. I find myself meditating longer and more often, trying to live in the moment as vulnerability entails some projection into the future. I’ve also tried to do something for the people of Ukraine in a couple of small ways – a donation to the Red Cross and participating in a march through the streets of Cambridge, UK. (I’m aware that by mentioning this I risk being accused of virtue signalling.)

March in Cambridge, 5 March 2022

Above all else, I’ve sought solace in the Ukrainian writings and artistic works that have been surfacing en masse in mainstream and social media. Before this war, I was only familiar with a handful of Ukrainian writers, including Natalka Bilotserkivets. I found one of her poems again and reread it, forced by the present to interpret it differently:

ROSE

It’s time to pack your bag and go.
You don’t know what to take – something easy
to carry; everything you’d possibly need,
instantly found.

Two or three brushes, soap and a towel.
Clean underwear, just in case your lover
meets you – or God. Either way,
you should have clean underwear.

In a secluded place, among weeds
of a dense, heavenly forest, I’ll meet a rose.
Like Blake’s symbol of delicate mysticism –
the rose who loves the worm.

Having allowed him into her alluring womb,
she trembles, hidden, to avoid me,
and all poetry – a shame, a bore,
oh, poor flower, lovely, dear . . .

© Translation: 2002, Dzvinia Orlowsky
First published on Poetry International, 2006

Now I imagine a yellow rose against a blue sky and people packing hurriedly as if leaving their lovers, but with the hope of meeting them again.

‘Support’ by Olga Shtonda

Everyone’s Talking Ulysses

As this month marks the 100-year anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, it’s impossible to avoid.

My confession: I’ve read it one and two thirds’ times. That is, I first tackled this 700+page tome as an undergraduate in Chicago and failed to finish it – this is what happens when you work fulltime and take on a full schedule of classes. Self-pity aside, I managed two thirds of the book and with fastidious notes from the prof’s lectures, I partly bluffed my way through an essay exam, emerging with a B+. Fast forward to some 25 years later, I was in my forties and decided it was time to read the book cover-to-cover, including the 200+ pages of annotations at the back.

Such a reading exercise is hard work, simply because so much is involved in following the wandering thoughts and observations of Leopold Bloom and in understanding the political and social references of the time (those annotations come in handy). Ezra Pound described Ulysses as an ‘encyclopedia in the form of farce,’ and it is encyclopedic in that it covers a mass of subjects and ideas. But I don’t think ‘farce’ does it justice – the humour in Ulysses is at times situational, but is more often subtle and satirical.

Even though getting through Ulysses is an undertaking, it is worth it, especially in middle age. My undergraduate self couldn’t have possibly appreciated the nuance of emotions and the reflections on life:

‘Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves.’

The 25-year gap between my first and second readings was filled with, among other things, living in the UK and reading other modernist writers, such as Woolf and D.H. Lawrence. While I recall my younger self appreciating the turns of phrase and the love of language that trickles throughout the novel, I value it more from the vantage point of being a literary stylistician, noticing the occasional wink to the reader.

Would I read it again? People certainly do. I remember the poet Anthony Thwaite telling me that he read it about once every decade. For the true Ulysses aficionados, there’s the Twitter account UlyssesReader, which tweets out quotes from the book every ten minutes – it’s a corpus-fed bot. Serious fans make the pilgrimage to Dublin for the Bloomsday celebrations every 16th of June, the day the story takes place. It all sounds like good fun, but when it comes to rereading, I’d rather reread Joyce’s short story collection, The Dubliners, with one of my favourite stories, ‘Eveline.’ Or better still, read something for the first time. There’s Finnegan’s Wake, a Joyce book I found unreadable when I tried it some 30 years ago – it makes Ulysses read like a child’s nursey rhyme – and there it sits in my Kindle, waiting for me.